The Irish Brigade crossed the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg… a shadow of its former self. Three months earlier, along the banks of the Antietam Creek, the Irish Brigade marched to glory with more than 2,000 men. At Fredericksburg, the newly arrived 28th Massachusetts regiment bolstered the ranks to 1,200, but the veteran regiments had been decimated during the campaigns of 1862.
Meagher salutes his troops…
Don Troiani’s “Garry Owen”
Four Union brigades were beaten back… in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights. The Irish Brigade was next in the fight and started their advance at 1230pm. The men were briefly unsettled by a muddy canal ditch in the shadow of a low ridge. The order was given to reform and after a brief pause, bayonets were fixed. An officer remembered those harrowing moments: “In a few minutes came the word, ‘Attention!’ and every man was upon his feet again; then ‘Fix bayonets!’ and as this was being done, the clink, clink of the cold steel sounding along the line made one’s blood run cold.” Officers and men fell rapidly as casualties mounted across the front of the stone wall. Despite the harrowing losses, the brigade pushed on toward the wall, battling other Irish immigrants. Of all the Union troops which assaulted Marye’s Heights on December 13, the Irish Brigade advanced the farthest.
Troiani’s depiction of the assault
General Thomas Meagher described… the action, “Thus formed, under the unabating tempest of shot and shell, the Irish Brigade advanced at the double-quick against the rifle-pits, the breastworks, and batteries of the enemy. I myself ordered the advance, encouraged the line, and urged it on; but, owing to a most painful ulcer in the knee-joint, which I had concealed and borne up against for days, I was compelled, with a view to be of any further service to the brigade that day, to return over the plowed field over which we had advanced from the mill-race. I did so to get my horse, which had been left at the head of the street from which our column had debouched, in care of my orderlies, along with the other horses of the field and staff officers of the brigade, Brigadier-General Hancock having suggested that it would be advisable for all such officers to act on foot. On going for the horse on the left of the line, I met Captain Hart, the acting assistant adjutant-general of the brigade, who was moving up from the left to the right with the perfect coolness and intelligent bravery, forming and steadying the men for attack. Halting a moment on the left, I gave the word, and instantly saw the brigade impetuously advance. Passing down the slope, and through crowds of slain and wounded, I reached the spot where I had left my horse and mounted him.
Having mounted, I started with one of the orderlies to rejoin the brigade on the right, and with that view took the street across which the two companies of the Sixty-ninth, under Capt. James Saunders, a staunch and fearless officer, has been deployed as skirmishers. I had not proceeded many paces up this street before I met the remnant of the Sixty-third, bearing the regimental colors, coming toward me, under the command of Captain Gleeson, one of the bravest and most reliable officers of the brigade. With these few survivors of the Sixty-third were a portion of the Sixty-ninth.
Fearing that the enemy might break through our lines, which had begun to waver under those torrents from the musketry and artillery of the enemy that seemed every instant to increase in fury, I halted this handful of the brigade on the street parallel with the mill-race. Here I remained, by order of Brigadier-General Hancock, who personally communicated with me at the time, gathering in the fragments of my brigade, until finally I was ordered by him, through one oh his aides, to fall back and concentrate on the street from which we had commenced our approach to the battle-field. In this street the hospitals of the brigade had been established, and to it, consequently, all the officers and men of the brigade instinctively returned. I was, therefore, enabled, after three or four hours, to ascertain pretty accurately the available force that remained of the brigade. But while the fragments of the brigade were thus being reconcentrated, I had every reason to become convinced that the hospitals were dangerously, if not fatally, exposed; consequently I sent two of my aides, Captains Hart and Lieutenant Blake, of the Eighty-eighth, to Brigadier-General Hancock, to request of him that he would be so good as to authorize me to take what was left of the brigade across the river, the request for such authority being based on the fact that while there were not over 300 of the brigade, maimed and serviceable, who had reported themselves up to that time, the badly disabled were so numerous as to require the assistance of all those who were unhurt. Even while I was waiting for Captain Hart and Lieutenant Blake to return, several discharges of shells and rifle-balls broke through and over the hospitals of the Sixty-ninth and Sixty-third, and Eighty-eighth. All this time, however, the officers and men of the brigade obeyed my orders and conducted themselves with perfect calmness and cheerfulness…”
Bravery like this is rare in war… but was unusually common during the American Civil War. Conventional wisdom held that Confederate soldiers most often displayed uncommon valor during the war. There are no braver soldiers than those who assaulted Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg.